Far-Right Appeals to Islamophobia Fall Flat in Vienna

The poster shows a smiling man still on the uphill slope of middle age with his arm around a child, gesturing to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna and prominent symbol of the city. Above him in the clear blue sky is the declaration “Our home!”

Below the happy pair is a room full of women wearing burqas looking at a framed photo of a masked figure in battledress with an AK-47 within reach and the words “Home Sweet Home” scrawled on the wall behind. Next to the photo is an open window with a view of the tower of St. Stephen’s, but this time it is overlaid with a red crescent moon. At the bottom of the poster is the assertion that the party’s political opponents—social democrats, Christian democrats and Green party—support radical Islam.

Indeed, in 2020, Vienna’s far-right Freedom Party tried to win the support of the citizens of a city with some of the highest quality of life in the world by appealing to base religious prejudices. It strikes me as an astonishing approach, but it’s part of a strategy that worked before.

In 2015, for example, the city-wide elections coincided with the high-water mark of the refugee crisis in Austria. In August 2015, German immigration authorities decided that they would no longer require Syrians to process their asylum claims in the country in which they entered the EU. The news spread quickly, and soon all along the “Balkan Route” an already dire situation escalated out of control as tens of thousands of asylum-seekers set out towards Germany. Hungary built a fence to keep them at bay, but in early September—after Angela Merkel had declared “We can do it!”—Viktor Orbán opened the border to the west, and unprecedented numbers of refugees arrived in Vienna. The first wave had set out on foot, others came by train and bus. The main train station with connections to Germany was quickly overwhelmed.

No one was prepared to deal with the situation. Even the police were simply spectators of scenes that had last played out in the Second World War. Civil society rallied to provide support to the refugees, but like the government’s own efforts it was ad-hoc and in a constant state of flux. It took weeks for a semblance of order to be restored and months before life in Austria’s capital settled down into a new normal.

That experience left a mark on Austria’s political landscape. The country’s formidable bureaucracy had been caught flat-footed by the global dynamics of the refugee movements, and it quickly became apparent that not even it’s comfortable location in the heart of one of the world’s wealthiest regions would be enough to keep the refugee problem at arm’s length.

In the midst of all this, the Freedom Party campaigned on a platform of secure borders, a safe homeland and the “integration” of foreigners, which included monitoring of Muslim facilities such as mosques, schools and kindergartens and a ban on distributing free copies of the Quran in public. And it worked—in 2015 a record 30.79% of voters supported the Freedom Party, making them the second strongest party, less than 9 percentage points behind the social democrats who have run the city for the past century.

But in 2020 it didn’t—despite the party’s allegiance to the adage “never change a winning team,” support for the Freedom Party in Vienna collapsed by more than 20 percentage points to 7.75%. This is the biggest decline of any party in any election in Austria’s history.

Preliminary results of the 2020 municipal elections in Vienna. The Freedom Party is the blue column, second from left. (Source)

The context is a much different one today, of course. First, the national Freedom Party has been rocked by scandals large and small, which led to the collapse of Austria’s coalition government in 2019 and the disgrace of the former former vice-chancellor and Freedom Party chairman (he also ran in the election above; his results are the white column “HC”). His fall from grace revealed just how closely the party’s fortunes over the last decade had largely been a function of the chairman’s personality—people might have come for the sandy foundations of the party’s platform, but it wasn’t enough to tempt disappointed voters back into the fold.

Second, the refugee crisis didn’t lead to the collapse of civilization as we know it; indeed, it has gone back to being something most people experience only through the media. This doesn’t mean that Austrians aren’t currently facing an actual existential crisis—on the contrary. As a small, export-oriented country, Austria’s economic future is tied to global developments, and as we well know, the COVID-19 pandemic is leaving few stones of the global order unturned. Vienna in particular has been hard hit. Normally it is a popular destination for tourists and conferences, for example, but in the first half of 2020 overnight stays plunged by 66%, reaching a (preliminary?) nadir in June of -88%. And so it is all the more remarkable that despite the gloomy economic outlook, the far-right populists banging the drum of fear and prejudice not only failed to generate traction but took a sound drubbing instead.

I don’t think that the Freedom Party’s thrashing at the polls means that the Viennese have found religion, as it were. But it does suggest that prejudices alone are no substitute for charismatic leaders or, barring that, actual policy substance beyond opposing minorities and their religions and mounting toothless crusades against global developments. As a member of a tiny minority religion in this country, I am gratified that the appeal to Islamophobia went nowhere, even as society continues to grapple with the implications of the 2017 “Anti-Facial Covering Act” (which was passed when the national Freedom Party was part of the governing coalition) and the associated ban on burqas.

In my view the electoral rout sends a clear message about the wisdom of campaigning on the basis of prejudice—this loss is a win for religious freedom. But divining the will of the electorate is more of an art than a science, and the intended recipient of any message will undoubtedly have an own interpretation. Regardless, the outcome means that a party running on Islamophobia will be precluded from a governing role for the time being. Even if the outcome of this election will not itself guarantee religious freedom or the absence of persecution and prejudice of religious minorities, the prospect of cooler heads prevailing is a step in the right direction. And you know what they say about a journey of a thousand miles.

Comments

  1. Daniel Phelps says:

    Great analysis Peter, thanks!

  2. “the XYZ crisis didn’t lead to the collapse of civilization as we know it” — this is a great rationale to convince lazy thinkers.

    It could probably be said that the election of Douglas wouldn’t have led to the collapse of civilization as they knew it, but the election of Lincoln actually did lead to its collapse.

    Imagine yourself travelling back in time and convincing Eli Whitney his cotton gin will actually lead to “the end of civilization as we know” it though increasing the demand for slaves 400% over the next 60 years leading to a civilization ending (and eventually, we hope, improving) civil war.

    I don’t argue with the overall tone of the post (xenophobic campaign is bad), but that quoted line above is leaned on too often as a rationalization for some kind of post facto triumphalism by victors. Civilization will collapse some day. And no one but God can point to the X,Y, and Z for why it happened. And you can be assured the nuances will be small.

    Specific to the post though, the SPO party looks like it didn’t gain much (but any increase is good when you are the majority), the FPO just fell apart. The biggest winner looks to be the OVP?

  3. Thanks, Daniel.

    Point well taken, REM. I shouldn’t take civilization for granted; indeed, at the time I was worried about what the collapse of the state‘s ability to police its borders meant for the future. And of course the Freedom Party was quick to capitalize on the disorientation and fear provoked by some truly extraordinary scenes of chaos right here in the heart of Europe and campaigned with renewed urgency as the bulwark against the tide of foreigners.

    So the fact that Austria managed in the end, just as Germany did, was hardly a foregone conclusion, and I‘m genuinely glad that the country was able to adapt to the extent that the Freedom Party‘s attempts to stoke fear of a second wave of refugees this fall came to naught. That said, there’s no room for complacency and much for improvement.

    Otherwise, yes, the ÖVP is a big winner here. They have managed to outflank the FPÖ on immigration while maintaining respectability, something they‘ve been working on for the past 20 years.

  4. Is the Bier party as interesting as it sounds?

  5. @REM, I don’t know if saying that civilization didn’t collapse isn’t that lazy. Because fear-mongerers keep saying that if progressive X things happens it will be the worst thing ever, but then X happens and it’s never all that bad. The fear-mongerers will make the emergency and collapse sound imminent, but it never comes to pass.

  6. Geoff-Aus says:

    Are the muslims, becoming proud Austrians, or Germans. In Australia 2.6% of our population are now Muslim, but are proud Australians. About 10 times the number of LDS.
    We do have an extreme right wing anti muslim party, lead by a red head, and they get about 5% of the vote.

    Jacinda Ardern (PM of NZ) (raised as a member but left because of sexism, and homophobia) has just been reelected with an increased majority. Very inclusive of muslims when they were attacked and killed by a white supremacist.

  7. Jon Miranda says:
  8. Jon Miranda, always the one to use racist phrases like “these people” and to suggest the actions of one apply to a whole group.

  9. Jon Miranda says:

    Brian
    I I bet you that Professor wasn’t feeling too keen about the Muslims
    People love to point out that it’s only a tiny minority of people that do these things
    there are supposed to be about 2 billion Muslims in the world.
    1% of all these is 2 million people.
    Thats a tiny minority but that’s still a lot of people that can wreak havoc throughout the world.
    You have to vet these people.

  10. Jon, I bet you that professor didn’t feel great about that particular person. Why would he project that onto all Muslims? Just because its obvious from your posts every time something like this comes up that you project awful things onto entire groups of people, doesn’t mean it’s either right, accurate, or Christian. For instance, white supremacists are a growing threat in the world. Would you suggest that everyone should ‘vet’ all white people because they are white? Your argument is blatantly racist and against the teachings of the church.

  11. Jon Miranda says:

    Brian brian brian
    This small or tiny minority is the threat. You cannot set up a blind eye to what they do.

  12. Jon Miranda says:

    Brian brian brian
    This small or tiny minority is the threat. You cannot set up a blind eye to what they do.

  13. Jon, Jon, Jon, “they” huh? I’m not naive, but I’ll tell you what I can’t turn a blind eye to– your flagrant racist comments.

  14. Jon Miranda says:

    Brian
    People always say things about pit bulls and we know the power of pitbulls jaws. People often say any dog can bite but with a Chihuahua usually all you need is a Band-Aid. I bet you that guy that’s getting mangled by a Pitbull is not blaming the owner he’s thinking it’s the dog. All I’m saying is be cautious

    Isis and Al Qaeda are recruiting. There is no end to the supply of recruits.

  15. Jon, everyone uses fear to justify their racism. It’s never flattering or right.

  16. Jon Miranda says:

    Brian
    You sound like a DNC operative if you can’t make your point you just hurl the word racist or racism

  17. Geoff-Aus says:

    Jon, The article you referred to was about ralleys of support for the teacher. It was not an anti muslim rally. There were muslim people there too. They were rallying in support of a secular France, freedom of speech etc. The article included a statment by the The secretary general of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation condemned the attack on Sunday, reiterating that it rejects “all forms of extremism, radicalization and terrorism for any reason or motive.”
    I am impressed with the muslim people I see in Australia, who are proud Australians.

    The only racist comment is Trumps response, and yours.

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